In 2015, we took a vacation to Puerto Rico with two other families and had a blast. It was beginning to look like a fun annual trip and we were looking forward to it when the threat of Zika became too big to ignore. 🙁
Instead of Puerto Rico, we all thought it would be fun to check out this thing called Great Wolf Lodge! I'd heard the commercials on the radio all the time, but I'd never looked into it.
It turns out we'd been missing out…
So in early April, we had a nice little Spring Break vacation for three days and two nights at the Williamsburg, VA location.
The kids loved it.
First off, what's not to love about a water park? For the little one, there was the toddler pool with zero entry, two slides, and all kinds of buckets and showers to play with. For our older son, there was the bigger Fort Mackenzie, wave pool, lazy river, slides, and even the hot tub (which he loved…).
At night, there was even a storytime in the lobby and the kids were entranced.
The best part? The price. It was a fraction of the cost of a trip to Puerto Rico, we were able to bring our car so we had flexibility on where we ate, and we didn't have to worry about perfectly packed bags and decisions on what to bring.
We didn't know what the expected but we were pleasantly surprised!
I've collected a few of the lessons learned, hacks, and other tips that we learned after our first trip there.
Booking Your Room
Great Wolf Lodge is a combination hotel and water park. When you book your room, it comes with water passes.
The key to saving on your room is to keep an eye on sales and promotions, even if you've already booked your trip.
When we booked, we did it through Groupon Getaways, their vacation booking service, about three months from our trip. At the time, it was the best price.
Afterward, we signed up for the Great Wolf Lodge email list and saw that promotions and discounts were frequent! Shortly after booking, GWL had a sale, which was $120 less than what we booked for, so we canceled our Groupon and booked directly.
Groupon normally has a $65 cancellation fee but I asked Groupon if we could refund the cancellation fee. Turns out that fee was a GWL fee so we mentioned we booked direct, offered up our reservation number, and Groupon refunded the fee — all done through email!
If the price drops, you can call to get an adjustment.
We did this twice in the two weeks ahead of our trip. The first time was moving our booking from Groupon to directly with GWL (explained above). The second time, less than a week before our trip, brought our price per night down from $215 to $125 when they ran yet another promotion!
The total move was from $481.26 on Groupon to $325.86 direct.
If you book on a third party site, keep an eye on the Taxes & Fees line in the summary. Most places will only put county taxes and fees (like county occupancy taxes, hotel taxes, sales taxes), but GWL charges a “Resort Fee” too. You don't get a breakdown of these fees until you check out and ours were $19.99/night on a $124.99/night booking! Be sure to include that in your vacation budget or it could be a shock.
Sign up for the email list — It's worth mentioning twice but remember to join the email list!
They send out coupons frequently, even after big vacation periods start like Spring Break (probably their peak demand), so sign up. Three months out the best deal, by far, was a Groupon. About a month away, a direct booking was $120 cheaper.
I guess that their high season is a short window in the spring and fall. It needs to be cold enough outside that an outdoor water park is unappealing. Once it's warm enough outside, it's hard to justify paying for an indoor water park when so many outdoor options are available. So the typical Spring Break period, in March, is their high season.
For a consumer, that means except for that two or three week period where it's Spring Break for schools, GWL is pretty much always on sale. If you are flexible, take advantage of it.
Are the packages worth it? When you book directly, GWL offers up packages like Paw Pass, Pup Pass, etc. Since this was our first trip, we didn't buy any of them.
If it's your first time, you don't need all the bells and whistles. Our kids were enamored with the park, exhausted at bedtime, and barely made it through the stories at night. When they're older, it might make sense to get a package where some of the other packages are discounted and by then we'll understand what we're buying.
Food at the LodgeOur room came with a dorm-style refrigerator and a microwave, the two appliances you need if you want to bring your own food. There's also a Walmart right outside of the park (in Williamsburg, VA) where you can find all the provisions you could need.
Each morning, our breakfast consisted of cereal and milk. We're a simple breakfast family when we want to be though my wife and I rarely turn down a plate of eggs in the AM. Our kids are nice and easy, a bowl of cereal with milk will get them through to a mid-morning snack with nary a complaint.
It works out well especially when the breakfast buffet is $15 a person (though children are cheaper and those under 3 eat free). You can get it for $10 a person if you prepay when booking, though we didn't.
As for the other meals, we were only there for one lunch (we ate before arrival and we left before lunch). We were there with two other families and one of them brought a Caesar Salad from Costco while we picked up two pizzas from Hungry as a Wolf (the pizza place at the lodge).
Pizza runs about $15 each, which is fairly reasonable considering that's how much a regular pie costs in a pizzeria near home (if you don't count coupons and other discounts). Not your typical high “park” prices.
Dinner was always away from GWL. One night we went to the Huntsman Grill, a decent restaurant within talking distance and reasonable prices. It serves American fare, reliable and average, not particularly good but not bad. The next night we ventured towards the Williamsburg Outlets and found a restaurant there. If you visit, you'll find plenty of restaurants nearby with a variety of options.
While we never ate at the main buffet restaurant, I did wander in and the food looked good. Nothing will blow you away and the price is what you'd expect for an all you can eat price. If you're here for more than a couple nights, I can't imagine you'd want to eat at the restaurant more than once though. It looked like the same thing every night but I could be wrong, I only peeked in once.
Here are some more general tips for food:
- Take advantage of the microwave and refrigerator! It's not a full kitchen (it's a hotel after all) but the dorm-sized fridge can hold quite a lot and you can save a ton not eating at the buffet all the time.
- Research the nearby restaurants. At the Williamsburg GWL, there were a ton of food options nearby. GWL is large but not so big that it creates a distortion field around it as Disney might. You have plenty of regular options if you don't want to pay extra for the convenience of not having to get into your car.
Picking Rooms (Hint: They are Massive)
I do a bit of business travel and I'm used to rooms that don't have a ton of square footage.
We booked the Family Suite and it was massive. It easily sleeps six, has two queen-sized beds and a pull-out couch. We brought a Pack N Play (they have them too, we would later learn) because our daughter still likes to sleep in hers and our son slept on the pull-out couch.
What's nice is there's a legitimate half-wall that blocks out that side of the room. The picture shows it going just half the length of the bed, ours went the full length.
What You Can Leave At Home
One thing that surprised us was how much Great Wolf Lodge has on-site.
You will not need towels, Pack ‘N Plays, or life vests.
They have Puddle Jumpers for folks who like them as well as traditional life vests in two sizes. Our two-year-old and our four-year-old were able to wear vests or puddle jumpers, depending on their mood, so we kept ours in our room where they'd be nice and dry.
Three Days, Two Nights was IdealOn the day you check into the lodge, you can use the park starting at 1 PM even though check-in isn't until 4 PM. The day we arrived, we checked in before 4 PM but didn't get access to our room until a couple of hours later. They were able to email us when it was ready.
If you book two nights, you can get three days in the water park. We felt that three days, two nights was the ideal period given our near three-hour drive to the park. Anything longer would've felt too long, especially for our young kids. Perhaps when they're older we could add another day but for now, this felt like a good time.
What We Didn't TryMagiQuest: Since our kids were younger, we didn't do a lot of the other games that older kids might find appealing – like MagiQuest. MagiQuest is a live-action role-playing game where your kids can go around the lodge and interact with various objects. There were times when my oldest watched other kids play the game and he was fascinated, but not so much that he wanted to try it yet. I only saw shades of it but when you look at the MagiQuest website, I think you'd agree a little kid would love it.
Our friends gave it a try and bought the wands. You can keep them for next time, it's not some kind of rental, and they felt that the kids loved seeing things move, make noise, and interact… but didn't follow the story or the quests.
We wandered through the arcade, which was like sensory overload for our kids (and me!), and passed by the spa, but didn't use it. When our kids get older I'm sure one of them will want to go to the spa… and maybe I'll get to take them. 🙂
Overall, a great trip. We were very impressed and our kids ask all the time when we're going back!